Sam Fisher's determined to creep back into your life.
Sam Fisher climbs quicker than a starving monkey in pursuit of a ripe, hanging banana. He puts guards to sleep using the back of his thigh, the palm of his hand, the tip of his elbow, or a carefully thrown gas grenade. With an array of cutting-edge weaponry and high-tech gadgets at his disposal, not to mention an elite team of tactical wizards whispering words of wisdom in his ear, our leather-clad man on the ground is, essentially, an indestructible, superhuman sleuthing machine.
Unless he steps out of the shadows, that is. Ubisoft’s sneaky veteran may be decidedly overpowered, not to mention disturbingly agile for a man his age, but a couple of well-aimed bullets are more than a match for our tiptoeing hero in Splinter Cell: Blacklist. And that’s assuredly a good thing, because Sam’s one vulnerability encourages you to play Blacklist the way it should be played: stealthily.
Nevertheless, Blacklist performs a tricky balancing act which many games fail to successfully accomplish. You can, should you be so bold, play the game as though it was a typical third-person, cover shooter. But honestly, it feels downright blasphemous to shun the stealth specialty on offer in Splinter Cell: Blacklist, especially when it’s this expertly refined.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist packs an explosive and surprisingly competent story despite the tired subject matter it draws inspiration from. A terrorist organisation who call themselves The Engineers launch a vicious attack on an American airbase, killing countless soldiers in the process. The technically savvy psychos decide to upload a video of their gruesome work to the Internet, while delivering a cryptic, impending list of future targets known as The Blacklist. Their demands are simple: unless the US government removes all American troops from 153 countries around the world The Engineers will work their way through The Blacklist, with a new attack every seven days. Naturally, the onus falls upon Sam Fisher and his newly-formed Fourth Echelon team to bring The Engineers reign of terror to an abrupt end.
While Blacklist’s story initially appears to be yet another patriotic love letter to residents of the star spangled banner, there’s thankfully a strict focus on believable (and understandable) military jibber-jabber and covert mission planning during the game’s campaign. It provides just enough of a distraction to overshadow any undertones of stereotypical racism that we’ve come to expect towards the middle-east; you’ll still make your way through plenty of Arabic locales and encounter yet another calculated, crazed madman, but it’s far more tastefully done than in Medal of Honor: Warfighter, for example.
The story also presents a number of genuinely poignant moments where the once clear line between good and evil is undoubtedly blurred. For instance, Sam has to make choices whether to spare or kill certain characters in the story – do you add another body to the death count, or avoid unnecessary bloodshed? Another example involves one particular mission where Sam coldly threatens to murder a military man’s wife and children unless he cooperates, while proceeding to make subtle digs about the state of his war-ravaged country. Clearly, Ubisoft could have done more in this area, but it was refreshing to see that they at least acknowledged that the heroes of war aren’t always as clean cut as they may seem.
Sadly, the main cast of characters who make up the Fourth Echelon anti-terrorist task force are a largely forgettable, stuffy bunch. Charlie Cole, in particular, is a dull, overworked and annoying portrayal of a know-it-all computer hacker. He constantly pokes fun at the team’s current plight and almost makes Sam seem practically redundant with his nonchalant work ethic to the supposedly complex tasks he’s assigned. Then there’s Anna ‘Grim’ Grimsdottir, a long-time ally of Sam and a distinctively trite and high-strung individual who has as much emotional appeal as an industrial landfill. Rounding up the three supporting cast members is Isaac Briggs, who, to be fair, has a strangely sympathetic and disturbingly kind face for a man tasked with killing for a living. It’s difficult to ascertain whether this was an intentional look or just a weird consequence of the performance capture software the developers used to record the actors’ faces and voices. After playing through one bizarre mission where you control as Isaac from a first-person perspective, I concluded it was certainly not intentional.
Of course, it would be wrong to gloss over the main man himself, Sam Fisher. Though long-running voice actor Michael Ironside was controversially axed in favour of Eric Johnson of Smallville fame, Johnson does an admittedly decent job of giving Sam enough grit and grizzle to placate any bitterness fans may be harbouring. However, Ubisoft’s decision to give Fisher a brand new, younger face may be more difficult to stomach.
Where Splinter Cell: Blacklist really shines, then, is in the gameplay department. Fans who despised Splinter Cell: Conviction will be relieved to hear that many core gameplay mechanics missing from the previous games in the series return; you can move dead bodies, complete missions unseen and play the game without turning into a bloodthirsty, bearded man wearing a single-shoulder-strap backpack this time around. Yet, many of the gameplay mechanics that Conviction introduced remain intact in Blacklist. You can still mark and execute enemies, point and click to move between cover and that haunting, white silhouette of your last know position returns whenever you stumble into a firefight.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is truly fun to play. I was still overcome with a palpable, thrilling sensation when lurking in the shadows, breath held, as I waited to make a clinical strike against an unsuspecting guard.
Before starting a mission, players can also choose a loadout and customise Sam’s gear. Your team will give you tips on what you should bring but many of the options will be locked until you purchase them using the aforementioned cash you can earn. Again, it only serves to emphasise the fact that you can tailor the game to your style and play the game the way you want to play it.
And Splinter Cell: Blacklist is truly fun to play. I was still overcome with a palpable, thrilling sensation when lurking in the shadows, breath held, as I waited to make a clinical strike against an unsuspecting guard. The enemy AI is notably solid, too, with a forgiving detection system which won’t screw you over if you make the slightest misstep. I did find it amusing when one guard said to another, “we’ll cover more territory if we split up,” but silly, life-threatening decisions aside, the AI will pose an engaging challenge, especially on higher difficulties.
Sadly, Blacklist doesn’t offer much variety. Sure, there are plenty of lights to shoot out, a number of different approaches to each scenario, and a liberating sense of freedom, but there isn’t really much innovation on offer. One nice touch was the need to pick up an enemy body to make it through security lasers that blocked your path, making a seemingly simple task such as entering a facility full of guards without being seen noticeably more difficult. Sadly, fresh ideas which expand upon the formula such as this are kept to a bare minimum.
That being said, one unexpected and admirable addition to Splinter Cell: Blacklist is the pre-mission hub. You can interact with your team aboard the Paladin, the team’s mobile headquarters, and access the proficient menu interface known as the SMI (Strategic Mission Interface). Though it lacks the bells and whistles of Mass Effect’s Normandy, Fisher can walk around the Paladin and talk to team members to enhance the story, find out about new gear and tackle side missions which they may request. You can also access the multiplayer and singleplayer/co-op missions through the SMI.
Merc My Day
By far the biggest coup for Splinter Cell: Blacklist and hardcore Splinter Cell fans alike is the return of Spies vs Mercs multiplayer mode. After a staggeringly lengthy absence, the incredibly fun and liberating mode is back with a bang – and it’s just as brilliant as before. Players are split into two squads, one side playing as the spies from a third-person perspective, while the other play as mercenaries from a first-person perspective. The mercenaries are packed to the hilt with superior weaponry and armour and are tasked with protecting data terminals from the infiltrating spies. Their maneuverability is limited to walking around on the ground and hopping over a few barricades if necessary. Spies, on the other hand, are far more nimble, able to climb walls and sneak through air vents just like Sam Fisher; however, their armour is paper-thin and their weaponry isn’t nearly as powerful – it’s all about outwitting your opponent and using stealth to your advantage. Even though the differences between the two squads are clear, the balance between them is exceptionally fair – you never feel disadvantaged playing as either side.
Unfortunately Splinter Cell: Blacklist is let down by a number of technical issues. PS3 owners will be rudely transported back to 2008 upon booting up Blacklist for the first time, because the game requires a hefty 30-40 minute install before you can get into the action. It’s hardly an ideal introduction to a game, especially when the load times are still rather lengthy, but it’s a one time deal I suppose, so it’s hard to be too critical.
What is rather difficult to ignore, however, is the sub-HD visuals of the PS3 version I played. Running on the ageing Unreal 3 Engine, the decidedly murky appearance of the visuals is prominent throughout, especially during brighter, outdoor missions. Facial animations look great during cutscenes, but even then the game suffers from nasty bouts of screen tear.
A review copy of Splinter Cell: Blacklist was provided courtesy of Ubisoft. The game was reviewed on PlayStation 3.
Back In Black
Splinter Cell: Blacklist marks a fine return to form for Sam Fisher. While Splinter Cell purists may still long for a return to the days of Chaos Theory, there’s just enough of the old mixed in with the new to appease newcomers and veterans alike.